To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world. Freya Stark
In The Longest Way Home, McCarthy explores what travel means for him and why it is that he feels more at home in himself, the farther away from home that he is.
McCarthy says that he got his break in travel writing after meeting Keith Bellows, editor of National Geographic Traveler magazine at a party and telling Bellows that he should let him write for his magazine. When Bellows asked “why?”, McCarthy responded “I travel a lot and I know how to tell a story”. McCarthy was right on both counts.
Part memoir, part travelogue, Andrew McCarthy begins with his 80s fame (remember Pretty in Pink and St Elmoes Fire?) and charts his love of travel and his personal life which, at the time the book is set, has reached a cross roads.
McCarthy journeys around the world and, as he weaves stories about Patagonia, a boat trip in the Peruvian Amazon, the remote Peninsual Osa in Costa Rica and climbing Kilimanjaro, the thread of a personal journey to reconcile his desire for solitude with staying in one place, commitment and a settled home life runs through them all. In making this journey, McCarthy examines what travel means for him and why he does it:
For me, travel has rarely been about escape; it’s often not even about a particular destination. The motivation is to go—to meet life, and myself, head-on along the road. There’s something in the act of setting out that renews me, that fills me with a feeling of possibility. On the road, I’m forced to rely on instinct and intuition, on the kindness of strangers, in ways that illuminate who I am, ways that shed light on my motivations, my fears.
McCarthy explains how Paul Theroux was an early influence on his choice to travel alone – “Only in the “lucidity of loneliness,” as he calls it, can we see what we came to see and learn what it is we came to this spot to learn.” From his solitary voyages, McCarthy understands that travel “creates space that allows thoughts and memories to intrude and assert themselves with impunity. Smells and sights, the quality of light, the honk of a horn—can all act as touchstones when least expected.”
If “aimless drifting” has always been at the centre of McCarthy’s travelling, there is nothing aimless about the choice of destinations in The Longest Way Home. The individual travel pieces that make up the book are thoughtfully chosen and underscore McCarthy’s internal journey.
He travels to remote and desolate places where no-one is from and to which people have been transplanted; places where people are solitary but find community. Places like Patagonia (“I hope you like to be alone”; “Isn’t everyone here from somewhere else?”) and Peninsula Osa in Costa Rica (which “is largely off the grid”). When travelling on a boat on the Amazon with a group, McCarthy is a reluctant group member and expresses his discomfort at the enforced intimacy of group meals and craves solitude.
It is in such places when he is alone and far from him that McCarthy has the luxury of indulging in “a melancholy feeling isolation and separateness” which allows him to recapture and hold on to a place within him which is his own and understand the paradox that his desire to travel is driven not by a desire for impermanence but “to feel at home” in himself.
In the process, McCarthy captures the “uncomplicated joy” of solo travelling, “meeting a new day with no past, with no plan, and with no one in the world knowing where I am” and compares it to the excitement he felt as a child waking up on Christmas morning. His enthusiasm and passion for the act of travelling and the places he describes is infectious.
Watch McCarthy in conversation with travel writer Don George for NG Live! here: